After spending an entire semester learning about school choice, I thought that I was more than prepared to attend my first school choice fair. Shockingly, when I arrived to the school choice fair on the morning of December 15th, I instantly felt overwhelmed with both excitement and the need to make quick decisions. Upon entering the school choice fair, I was offered a booklet that was about a ½ inch thick. I politely declined the booklet because quick decision-making told me that standing in the front of the room, reading a booklet, wouldn’t do me much good. Unsure where to go, I proceeded to look for some sort of starting point. I soon noticed all of the individuals wearing orange shirts and jackets scattered around the room. Then, in between the crowd of people I noticed two tables. One was for the Regional School Choice Office (RSCO) and the other was for Hartford Public Schools (HPS). Casually, I walked closer to the tables. I noticed papers that appeared to have school names listed. It was then that I started to understand the posters set up behind the RSCO and HPS tables.
Each school was provided a table and a number. Parents and visitors could search for a particular school by name and then find the school’s assigned table number. I knew that I wasn’t interested in a particular school, so I decided to start at the tables to the left and walk through the aisles. Each school’s table had a science fair poster board that displayed the school’s name and information pertaining to the school. Some schools had one representative standing at the table. Others had two representatives. Some schools even had a student present to share their stories with anyone who stopped by the table. I later realized that there were over 70 schools represented at the fair and the schools were separated into three sections: magnet schools, open choice schools, and HPS schools. I also noticed that there were 12 computers set-up as stations were parents could complete lottery applications with the help of three staff members. There was also a Transportation Services counter set up for parents to get information on transportation to and from schools.
One aspect of the school choice fair that intrigued me was the recruitment tactics of each of the schools. While casually walking up and down the aisles, I noticed that that some schools had mostly words on their boards. Other schools had poster boards that were picture collages illustrating various activities that students could participate in. This made me ask myself, “How do parents decide which schools to learn more about and why?” I soon found Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy (HMTCA)’s table where a contact of mine stopped me to say hello and share a few words. She informed that some schools used different tactics to recruit students and parents. In some cases, if a school is associated with a college, such as HMTCA, the schools will emphasize their affiliation with the college in order to attract parents’ attention to their school. My informant also stated that some magnet schools have tactics, such as post card blasts. A post card blast is when a school sends informative post cards to residents in a particular neighborhood. A tactic like this is used to attract students of diverse backgrounds. My informant stated that HMTCA did a post card blast in the North End of Hartford in hopes of attracting more African American students. This illustrates that schools are aware of the racial compositions of Hartford areas and that they aim to attract students of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, in order to meet the racial diversity goals of the Sheff Movement. But, I am still uncertain of how parents make sense of all of this, especially if they are just learning about school choice. How do parents decide which schools are the right schools to apply to?
While in the HPS schools section, a male representative from Bulkeley High School stopped me for a conversation. We talked for about 15 minutes. (With the school choice fair lasting only three and a half hours, parents must find it impossible to have a meaningful conversation with every school representative. Therefore, there must be a way of narrowing down the school selection process. But, what technique do parents use?) Most of the conversation was his take on what Bulkeley had to offer and that he believed HPS schools, such as Bulkeley, got a bad reputation because of magnet and open choice schools. Nancy Winterbottom, a retired Hartford teacher, expressed similar concerns. 1 She stated that many students were leaving traditional schools for choice schools. Thus, traditional school populations were falling and, as Winterbottom puts it, leaving the neediest students behind.
During the semester we talked about magnet and open choice schools outperforming traditional public schools and we examined how to lie with statistics. 2 But, I never stopped to think what parents thought of this. Does the idea of magnet schools and open choice schools make parents, especially those who learn about schools via social networks, have preconceived notions about schooling, in particular about traditional public schools? Are parents reading misleading articles and basing their school choice decisions off them? Did a parent read Kathleen Megan’s article and say to themselves’, “Magnet and open choice schools are so successful! I MUST enroll my son/daughter in one.” It could be that parents who know about school choice are completely disregarding traditional public schools as “first choices” for their students to attend. Schools like Bulkeley may, in fact, be getting bad reputations because of misleading statistics that are published, that compare magnet and open choice schools to traditional public schools.
- Winterbottom, Nancy. “Hollowing Out City Schools: It’s Wrong to Blame Teachers and ‘Failing Schools,’ When Flight to Magnet and Charter Schools Leaves Neediest Students Behind (op-ed Essay).” Hartford Courant, March 14, 2010. http://articles.courant.com/2010-03-14/news/hc-winterbottom-teachers-accoun.artmar14_1_choice-schools-charter-vulnerable-students ↩
- Megan, Kathleen. “Hartford Students In Regional Magnets And ‘Open Choice’ Outperform Kids In City Schools.” Courant.com, October 25, 2012. http://www.courant.com/news/education/hc-magnet-school-scores-20121025,0,5325784.story ↩